Elementary School Wellness Program Helps Young Males of Color Cultivate...

Diversity and Equity

Elementary School Wellness Program Helps Young Males of Color Cultivate Their Identities

By Mikel Brand Oliver     Aug 24, 2018

Elementary School Wellness Program Helps Young Males of Color Cultivate Their Identities

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

Over the past three years, a group of elementary school students from Southeast Washington, D.C., have been redefining what “high achieving” really means. Growing up in a neighborhood of the nation’s capital where success is far from guaranteed, these students are cultivating positive identities, strengthening their relationships with peers and adults and sharing their stories with the world in a variety of ways.

One group of students conducted interviews on the National Mall asking people to share their hopes for local youth and filmed a documentary on their findings with guidance from a team of teachers, school leaders and creative professionals. After receiving training on building a prototype and marketing, a second group developed, bottled and sold infused water called “Southside Water,” using the proceeds to pay for (and hand deliver) water to community members in need. A third group published a book of original poetry and photography, “The Peace King Storybook, Vol 1,” and a passionate fifth grader designed, organized and led a chess tournament called “Black Goes First” for his peers, teachers and community.

These students are all participants in The Creative School (formerly The Boys Institute) at Stanton Elementary School, an initiative designed to promote wellness and creativity—and to flip the narrative around young boys of color.

Leaders Of The New School - The Creative School from Cam.era on Vimeo.

We Kings

In 2016, D.C. Public Schools awarded nearly $1.7 million dollars in innovation grants to 16 schools across the city as part of the Empowering Males of Color initiative, an effort to elevate the student experience for young men and boys of color. Stanton Elementary School received the sixth largest award to develop and launch The Boys Institute (TBI), an in-school and after-school program designed to guide young boys of color in building a strong sense of identity and self-pride, to grow a village of supportive adults in their lives and to provide opportunities and spaces for creative expression.

The Boys Institute launched with 45 boys in third through fifth grade inducted into the inaugural TBI Summer Academy in 2016. These individuals were nominated by teachers based on a combination of factors including behavior, leadership and influence, academic achievement and family engagement. The selection process was designed to ensure participation from a diverse cross-section of boys to prove that the practices and the programmatic vision of TBI have the power to improve school experiences for all boys at Stanton and greater Southeast D.C.

Since inception, the institute’s driving force has been the pursuit of wellness through creativity, specifically storytelling. The goal has always been to flip dominant narratives in education that silence the voices of young males of color, replacing them with a vibrant mosaic of stories characterized by hope, self-discipline, integrity and love. As such, students in the program refer to themselves as “peace kings,” or young men who confidently walk with pride and spread peace in every space they occupy.

Peace kings participate in a weekly two-hour creative lab facilitated by a creative network of teachers and mentors in which they collaborate with their peers to explore areas such as photography, poetic justice, entrepreneurship and baseball. These labs provide time and space to share stories with each other.

The Creative School’s leadership team has set up multiple partnerships with community organizations to support the program such as the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, local poetry collective “Split This Rock,” a D.C.-based STEM and mentoring program called “College Tribe” and Khepera Wellness, an organization that hosts diverse wellness experiences for the D.C. community.

Peace kings engaging in wellness practices, Image Credit: The Creative School

Since our program launched, kings have leveraged a variety of approaches to exchange their gifts and have created new ways of affirming their identities and sharing their truths. Their sense of belonging and self-awareness have been fortified in how they see themselves and each other.

They hold one another to high standards as brothers, whether it’s practicing mindfulness in Yoga Ma'at with their brothers so they can learn to value peace over frustration during a tense classroom altercation, leveraging strategies they learn in chess class to help them break down complex problems in math, or applying what they learn about communicating with teammates during baseball to other relationships in their lives.

At Stanton, we often see kings supporting one another with encouraging reminders during moments of frustration, graciously offering courtesy and taking genuine interest in the needs of others.

Image Credit: The Creative School

Big Goals, Bigger Dreams

In addition to some of the changes we’ve seen related to confidence, relationships, resilience and behavior, we’ve have also noticed that in less than three years, this initiative, which did not have a primary focus on academic achievement, has provided learners with the ability and drive to outperform their peers in academics (as measured by MAP assessments and Achievement Network benchmarks in ELA and math). While we don’t feel that traditional academic data provides an accurate reflection of all of the types of growth we’re witnessing, we are very proud of the academic growth our kings have demonstrated, and more importantly they are proud of themselves and each other.

We attribute the progress we’ve seen to a few factors including the phenomenally gifted group of teachers who believe in the vision and work of TBI and actively pursue wellness with their students, an administrative team who unequivocally supports innovation and ingenuity within this work and our dedicated kings and families that trust the school.

Mostly though, we believe it is our continual pursuit to disrupt systems that are designed to oppress and silence the stories, truths, beauty and identity of marginalized groups and communities.

Over time, the greater school community noticed how the institute’s work was impacting the kings and wanted to spread best practices around wellness from TBI across Stanton Elementary. In September 2017, there was an effort to codify the primary pedagogical framework used within TBI and share it to build a network of creatives including educators, families, community advocates and political leaders who pursue academic, communal and personal wellness with kings.

As kings graduated from the institute, they started to ask “what next?” This question raised curiosity around the idea of kings designing their own school, graduating from it and then becoming fit to lead it. The Creative School emerged as a creative space co-led by boys to spread wellness across the school, which we hope will one day become its own standalone school.

To continue this work, we have a few big goals for the next five years. First we want to figure out how to measure academic, personal and communal wellness within the ecosystem of school and community and capture wellness growth in compelling ways. Then we want to make these opportunities more accessible, and as a first step, we’ve launched open after-school clubs like gardening, animation, drumming, and mural art that are open to all students. Finally, we believe that the future of our work lies in the creation of a standalone school that is co-designed by our kings. While we’re not sure what shape it will take or what path we will find ourselves on, we’re confident in the ability, creative prowess and perseverance of our kings to pave the way.

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